Towards the middle of the continent near the Pacific ocean at an elevation of almost seven thousand five hundred feet is the Valley of Mexico. The Valley is surrounded by towering rocks which seem to have been placed there for the sole purpose of protecting the land. The land itself that at one time was full of greenery and trees is now somewhat bare and, in some places, white with salt from the draining of waters. Five lakes are spread over the Valley, which occupy about one tenth of its surface (Bray 1968).
On the opposite shore of the largest of these lakes stood the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. This land can be seen in Fig 1. Aztlan was an island city in the middle of a lake, surrounded by reeds and marshes. The region around Aztlan was arid but in Aztlan, the birds and fish were abundant. The Mexicas lived peacefully until their patron deity commanded them to leave Aztlan and find the land of their true destiny. This just happened to be the year I Flint in their calendar. This year only came around every 52 years, and when it did, the Mexicas saw it as a rebirth and initiated great undertakings.
Throughout the migration Huitzilopochtli, a fierce and relentless god who forced them to give up settlements and move forward if they had stayed in one place too long, drove them. Under his direction the Mexicas canoed across the lake and began the long march of their migration. They arrived first at a mythical place called Teoculhuacan (The place of Those With Divine Ancestors) (Bray 1968). At Teoculhuacan, like at every stop along the way, they built a temple to their god and awaited instruction. The migration was long and grueling.
At each stop the Mexica would erect a temple to Huitzilopochtli, build houses, and plant crops to feed themselves. They would remain at some places for years. Sometimes Huitzilopochtli would tell them to move onward even before the harvest would come in. This caused a great suffering among the people. Those who were old, weak, or sick were left behind in some places, thus populating the route. As the migration reached toward the Valley of Mexico, they quickly discovered that settled peoples had already occupied all the prime lands.
These people had farmed these lands for centuries and had migrated here earlier. The Mexicas were forced to move on from place to place, until they finally stopped at the hill on the western edge of Lake Texcoco called Chapultepec (Grasshopper Hill) (Boone 1994). Even after they had settled here, Huitzilopochtli warned them that this was not their promised land and that they should prepare for war because they were surrounded by people who did not care for them. When the people attacked, they captured their ruler and carried him to Culhuacan (Place of Those with Ancestors), and sacrificed him.
The Mexica now were under the rule of the Culhua lord. They begged him for a place to live. He told them they could live nearby at Tizapan. This place was a fierce wilderness occupied by vipers and lizards. The Mexica were grateful and instead of letting the snakes and lizards kill them off, they killed the poisonous snakes and feasted on them. The Mexica behavior totally astonished the Culhua, who gained a fearful respect for his neighbors. They lived next to each other for some time, and gradually they began to intermarry.
Huitzilopochtli, determined that the Mexica should leave this place, came up with a devilish scheme to instruct his priests to ask the Culhua lord for his beloved daughter who would rule over the Mexica as Huitzilopochtli’s bride. Once she had arrived, the Mexica “took the young princess of Colhuacan [Culhuacan], heiress of that kingdom, and sacrificed her. Then they skinned her and dressed one of the youths in her skin, as the deity willed. Then they went to the sovereign of Colhuacan and asked him to come adore his own daughter and sacrifice to her as a goddess.
The King] accepted the invitation, calling together the dignitaries of his kingdom. With great confidence, [he] arose and went to the temple. He entered the chamber of the idol and began to perform many ceremonies As the room was dark he distinguished no one. Taking his hand a brazier with fire, he threw incense into it fervently. This began to burn and the room lightened up with the fire. Thus the king suddenly perceived the priest who was seated next to the idol, dressed in his daughter’s skin. This was such a frightful sight that the king was filled with a wild terror.
He dropped the brazier and rushed out of the temple shouting: ‘Come here, come, O my vassals of Colhuacan! Come avenge the foul deed committed by the Aztecs! They have killed my daughter and dressed a youth in her skin and have made me worship him. Death and destruction to men so evil and with such vile customs! Let not a trace of their memory remain! Let us put an end to them! ” (Boone 1994) The Mexicas barely escaped with their lives and were kicked out of Tizapan and were forced deep into the reeds and marshes of the lake.
There they wondered from place to place. Huitzilopochtli seeing the despair and weeping of his people promised to lead them to the promised land. As their god had told them, in the middle of the lake, they came upon a prickly cactus growing from a stone with an eagle nested upon it. At last the Mexicas had found their promised land. They founded their new home here and called it Tenochtitlan (Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus). Huitzilopochtli told them that they would find rest and grandeur, their name would be praised and their nation made great.
They would rule over people near and far and the city would be the queen of all others. This is where the great civilization of the Aztecs would begin and end. The next year, the first full year of their residence, was also appropriate because that year (2 House) stood for settling down. With this new year came the task of building their great city. They began by building a simple shrine for Huitzilopochtli. They then spent many a days shoring up the edges around their island. They also began firming the land and building houses out of wood and thatch.
They drudged up muddy soil form the lake bed to make fertile lands to grow crops on. These plots of land were known as chinampas. They followed the word of Huitzilopochtli and created their city with four main districts which surrounded the central district. During the early time of building some of the people left Tenochtitlan to found a sister city to the north known as Tlatelolco (Time Life Books 1992). In the early years the struggling Aztecs were forced to pay a stiff tribute and serve as mercenaries for Tezozomoc, the ruler of Azcapotzalco, which was home to the Tepanecs.
The Mexica soon grew tired of serving the Tepanecs and wanted to establish their royal dynasty. They looked to Culhuacan to help them out. The Mexica went before the Culhua lord and asked for a ruler to guide them and show them the way to live. They asked that he give Acamapichtli (Handful of Arrows), the son of a Mexica nobleman and the Culhua ruler’s daughter (Time Life Books 1992). Acamapichtli became the first Mexica tlatoani, literally speaker. He took his wife and ruled over the Mexica, whom celebrated when they referred to themselves as the Culhua-Mexica.
Acamapichtli and his successors- his sons Huitzilihuitl (Hummingbird Feather) and grandson Chimalpopoca (Smoking Shield)- controlled Mexica for the next 50 years (Bray 1968). They guided the early construction and accomplished many local conquests on their own. Huitzilihuitl married the daughter of their Tepanec lord Tezozomoc, who became so fond of him that he reduced to tribute to merely ducks, fish, and frogs. They were now more like allies than vassals. This relationship didn’t last long though. Tepanec came to resent the Mexica’s favored status and their arrogance.
When Tezozomoc died, his successor murdered Chimalpopoca. The Mexicas had had enough and when Itzcoatl took over he began allying with many of the other lakeside people. Iztcoatl and his forces defeated the Tepanecs and destroyed the city of Azcapotzalco, bringing an end to the Tepanec domination of the basin of Mexico. In the place of their domination came the Triple Alliance. A coalition between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Armies of the three fought together and the cities would share the incoming tribute.
Iztcoatl established the fact of the Aztec empire and its dominance over the Valley of Mexico. His successor, Montezuma Ilhuicamina, broadened the empire. Montezuma (Angry Lord, Archer of the Sky), was a brilliant military leader under Iztcoatl. During his reign (1440- 1469) he established the Aztec’s victorious military program (Boone 1994). While his armies were off expanding the empire, at home Montezuma wanted to make Tenochtitlan a fitting capital. He enlarged the temple to Huitzilopochtli and built aqueducts to bring water from Chapultepec to the heart of the city.
Axayacatl (Water Face), the sixth tlatoani, took on Montezuma’s thoughts of expanding the empire. Axayacatl also took care of problems close to the capital. When problems arose between Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, Axayacatl decided to just take over the market city. His string of victories came to s screeching holt at the hands of the Tarascans of Michoacan. The Tarascans never did fall under the control of the Mexicas (Bray 1968). Axayacatl’s successor and brother, Tizoc (Chalk Leg) took control and only ruled for about five years. He was seen as weak and cowardly in battle.
His main accomplishment was a renovation and expansion of the Templo Mayor complex. It was said that members of his court poisoned him. The next ruler was Ahuitzotl (Water Beast). He was the third brother to take the throne. He was a young man still in the school for the noble youths when he became tlatoani. He was very similar to his grandfather Montezuma. He extended the empire even further. He also renovated the temple for Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. After the completion of the temples a huge feast was had and Ahuitzotl invited all the guests to bring victims for sacrifice.
Some 20,000 people died that day (Boone 1994). Ahuitzotl’s successor Montezuma Xocoyotzin (Angry Lord, The Younger) also carried out great expedition. Not much was said of him because of the overshadowing of the humiliation that he experienced at the hands of the Spanish. Montezuma’s successor was an eighteen-year-old by the name of Cuahutemoc. Cuahutemoc’s rule was short. It ended when he was captured by the Spanish and killed two years later. Cuahutemoc was the last Aztec emperor. The Aztecs were described as short and stocky people.
The men rarely grew taller than 5 feet 6 inches and the women were much smaller, usually about 4 feet 8 inches. Their skin color varied from a dark to a light brown and the typical Aztec face was broad with a hooked nose. An Aztec’s eyes were either black or brown almond-shaped and they frequently had folds in the outer corners. Their hair was coarse, black, and straight. The men usually wore it cut in a fringe over the forehead and allowed it to grow down to the nape of the neck at the back. Priests had their own hairstyle while the warriors usually wore theirs in pigtails.
The women let their hair grow long. It usually just hung loose but on festival days it was braided with ribbons. Hair on the face was looked down upon. The Aztec men didn’t have to worry about it like we do today. They were blessed with very little facial hair so shaving was not done. Instead they plucked out what little they had with tweezers. Most young boys had hot cloths applied to their faces by their mothers to help stifle the hair follicles and to inhibit the growth of whiskers. Only the old or distinguished men wore beards and those were thin and wispy at best (Bray 1968).
The love of cleanliness was general among the Aztecs. Most bathed frequently in the lakes and rivers. Soap was not known to them but they used substitutes like the fruit of the soap-tree and the roots of certain plants which could produce a lather. Along with normal cold-water baths, the Aztecs also had a sort of sauna or steam bath. Most of the dwellings had a bath-house, a little hemispherical building shaped rather like an igloo with a little low doorway. Against the bathhouse was constructed a fireplace, and the blaze warmed the adjacent wall of the bathhouse until the wall glowed red-hot.
Once the wall was hot, the bather crept into the house and threw water onto the hot wall until the interior was filled with steam. To increase the flow of perspiration and to gain the full effect from the treatment, the bather switched himself with twigs or bundles of grass. Sometimes after the bathing process was done and the bather had finished with the steam bath, they might follow it with a message and a period of relaxation lying stretched out on a mat. The Aztec skin was naturally a light or dark brown color.
This was alright for the men but for the women the fashionable shade for their complexion was yellow. To get their skin to appear yellowish, women would either rub a yellow earth on themselves or anoint with a cream containing axin, a waxy yellowish substance obtained by cooking and crushing the bodies of fat-producing insects (Bray 1968). The women also used perfumes, rose water, and incense. They also had a form of chewing gum (made of chicle mixed with axin and bitumen) that was used to sweeten the breath. The most common article of male attire, for sleep as well as for daywear, was the loincloth.
It was a strip of fabric which went around the waist, between the legs, and was knotted so that one end hung down in front and the other end hung down behind. The quality of the loincloth varied according to the wealth and the status of the wearer. Farmers and workmen wore simple white strips of maguey fiber cloth, while the nobility wore more elaborate versions made of cotton and embroidered fur, or decorated with feathers and discs of precious stone. Young men dressed in the same way as the adults. There was another piece of clothing that men would wear if they could afford it.
For those who could afford it, it was a rectangular cloak that was wound around the body under the left armpit, and then knotted over the right shoulder (Bray 1968). When he was to sit down, he slipped his cloak down in front of him so that it covered up his legs. Rich men wore more than one cloak at a time to express wealth. For the women, the principal garment was a skirt which reached almost to the ankles and was held at the waist by an embroidered belt. Most skirts were a plain white cloth but for special times, the skirts were embroidered with special designs and patterns.
Over the skirt the women of nobility and upper class wore a kind of blouse made from a straight length of cloth doubled over at the top and sewn down the sides, leaving the armholes open. The blouse fell to the hips and was usually decorated around the neck and the bottom. The common people went barefoot, but soldiers and richer citizens wore sandals with soles made of leather or vegetable fiber. The sandals were held in place by straps which passed between the big and first toes. The Mexicas loved jewelry and accessories. Some of the things they used were fans, fly-whisks, and head-dresses made of green or red feathers.
Beads were made of rare stones or of gold cast into the form of crabs, scorpions, birds, or seashells, and necklaces were hung with bells which made noise when the wearer moved. Poorer people wore the same things but instead of using precious stones or materials, they used seashells or less expensive stones (Boone 1994). Young boys had their earlobes pierced during childhood, and the holes were fitted with tiny plugs that were replaced with larger ones, as the boy grew older. The earlobes were gradually stretched until the ears were capable of taking full-sized ear-spools. Each spool had a disc on each side to hold it in place.
Most men also had nose piercings through the septum of the nose. These holes held rods of gold or precious stones. The outside of the nose was also pierced and it was decorated with nose studs. The lower lip was also pierced with a labret or lip-plug. Water was the normal drink of the poor, but the rich could afford to buy chocolate, which was very highly esteemed. The cacao nuts were pounded, and then boiled in water with a little maize flour. The oil was skimmed off, the mixture was strained into a vessel, and whipped up into a stiff froth which gradually dissolved in the mouth.
It was generally consumed cold, often flavored with honey, vanilla, or various spices (Boone 1994). An alcoholic drink called octli was made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. Aztec law was particularly severe towards people getting trashed, though some indulgence was shown towards the old men and women on the grounds that ‘their blood was turning cold’, and they were allowed to drink octli, and even get a little drunk, on certain special occasions. At weddings and festivals there was a general dispensation and all persons over the age of 30 were permitted to drink.
Supposedly, the ration was 2 goblets per person, but no doubt this rule was broken more often than it was observed (Bray 1968). Porters and men of hard labor were allowed to refresh themselves occasionally, and women were allowed to drink as a tonic in the days immediately after child birth. A more dangerous kind of intoxication was produced by drugs like peyotl (from the buds of a cactus which grows in the deserts of northern Mexico) and a bitter black mushroom called teonanacatl, ‘sacred fungus’ or ‘flesh of the gods’, which was sometimes served with honey at feasts and banquets.
These two drugs are hallucinogens. Peyotl, the source of the drug mescaline, intensifies visual impressions and causes colored hallucinations, while teonanacatl may produce, in low doses, the symptoms of madness with all kinds of visions and illusions. People who ate the mushroom had comic visions or saw terrifying things like snakes. Some thought their own bodies were full of worms, which ate them alive. Others laughed hysterically or hid themselves away from everyone else, and a few even hung themselves or threw themselves over cliffs.
The seeds of climbing convolvulus (known in England as Morning Glory, but called by the Mexicans ololiuhqui or ‘holy plant’) were taken for their hallucinatory effects and were used in medical diagnosis (Bray 1968). The Mexicas also found pleasure in tobacco. Tobacco was native to the New World and was smoked by the richer Mexicans at the end of the meal. The tobacco was mixed with pulverized charcoal, to which were added flowers, and powdered bitumen, and other aromatic substances, and was smoked in tube-shaped piped made out of hollow reeds or from more expensive materials like tortoiseshell, silver, or painted and gilded wood.
The Aztecs squeezed their nostrils together while inhaling the smoke. From the beginning it was set forth by Montezuma I that there was to be a class distinction. The first clause in Montezuma’s law code states quite boldly that ‘The king must never appear in public unless the occasion is extremely important’, and throughout the Mexican society a man’s status in the community depended on his rank. This civil code included the ruling classes, the common people, and the slaves. At the top of the ruling class was he king himself. He was set apart from the people by his wealth and authority, and separated from them by a wall of courtly ritual.
No one got close to the king. Even his most important subordinates were kept at a distance. The king also was commander-in-chief of the armies of the Triple Alliance, and also held the title of tlatoani (He who Speaks). The Aztecs followed the custom of most other Valley tribes in holding an election to elect their king. The nobles, priests, and warriors all got together and decided on a worthy candidate. They would then take their decision and present it to the people. The people always went with the decision of the council. There was never a record of the people disagreeing with their choice.
As a courtesy to the other two tribes of the alliance, the kings of Texcoco and Tlacopan were asked to confirm the appointment. The election depended on the merit of the individuals, and the job of he council was to choose the most able person among the male relatives of the deceased king. They looked for valor in battle, good record of public service, and was he just in his conduct. Once the king was elected, he gained an assistant known as Ciuacoatl (Snake Women), who, despite the title, was a man, and who dealt with the mundane affairs of the government.
He was president of the high court and served as a deputy ruler in the king’s absence and acted as chairman of the electoral college when a king died. Below the Snake Women was the military commanders of the four wards into which Tenochtitlan was divided. Below them came the city council (Time Life Books 1992). The nobility class consisted of high officials who included senior generals, heads of the various branches of the civil service, judges of the appeal court, rulers of conquered cities, governors of provincial towns, and of the districts of Tenochtitlan.
These men paid no taxes and were given an official residence. He drew his income from lands that came under his title. The commoners were the people below the nobles and civil servants. This group contained the vast majority of the population. Of this mass of people, they were broken down into hereditary clans called calpolli (group of houses). All members of these calpolli considered themselves related by descent from a common ancestor. The original clans may have been kinship groups, but during the two centuries of urban life the kinship had become less important than those of residence.
The clans became like little landholding corporations, each of which occupied its own part of the city and also owned farmland, which it distributed among its members. Each family was given enough to satisfy its own needs. Within the calpolli, families were grouped into units of 20, which were combined into major units of 100 households (Bray 1968). There were two sections of the community, the mayeques and the slaves, that were outside the clan structure altogether. The mayeques were about 30 percent of the total population. They were free men who belonged to the class of landless peasants.
Since they did not belong to the clan system, they did not receive farmland and gained no benefit from the welfare services of the calpolli. The mayeques were the captured people from other lands who served as servants and sharecroppers. They also included newcomers to the Valley and also free commoners who had lost their civil rights through debt or crime. A slave was in about the same class as the mayeques but, unlike the mayeques, a slave was not free. A slave was owned outright by his master and could be put to any kind of work that his master saw fit.
Female slaves were given jobs in the kitchens and in the workshops where they wove cloth or made garments. Male slaves worked in the fields, acted as house-servants, porters, and laborers. If there was one way that slavery had an advantage over the mayeques was that the slaves were always guaranteed a roof over their head and food to eat. They also escaped the burdens of serving in the military and taxation. The main slave market was in Azcapotzalco where the trade was so well organized that the dealers were among the richest of the merchants.
Each of the merchants owned three or four buildings in the city, and in these buildings is where he housed his slaves. They stayed here until the day came to parade them in front of the buyers. They were made to display their skills in dancing and music. A slave who had no real talent cost the buyer about 20 cotton mantles (a poor man could live almost a year on that amount of money), but a good dancer could bring in about 30 to 40 mantles (Boone 1994). After the parade was over, the owner sent the slave off to a wooden cage where he would wait for his new owner to come pick him up.
Law governed the sale of slaves. A well-behaved slave could not be sold without his consent, but the law did allow a master to get rid of a slave who was dishonest, lazy, or disobedient. A heavy wooden collar was placed around the man’s neck and he was put up for sale again in the market. If a slave had gone through three owners and failed to satisfy any of them, he now gave up all dignity and could be bought for sacrifice. Aztecs were close to their gods and worked with them to further ensure the wellbeing of mankind.
The ‘representation’ of a deity was important to the Aztecs. The term they used was teixptla, which could mean either impersonator, image, or substitute. The teixptla was the physical representation or incarnation of the teotl (god). These were images created in stone, wood, and amaranth seed dough, which sat in the temples or were paraded around during the rituals. They connected to the teotl by virtue of the ritual. Aztec deities were this concentrated energy, manifested into forms as gods and goddesses.
They pertained to slightly different but largely overlapping realms such as storms and water, earth and agriculture, the sun and warfare, human fertility and such. There were two main gods of the Aztecs, Tlaloc and Huitzilopochti. Tlaloc (earth) was the principal water god. He brought the rain needed for agriculture. He also brought thunder and lightning, hail and snow. Huitzilopochti was the Aztecs’ principal god of war. The calendar began as a 20-day period. It was the count of the number of fingers and toes of the human body. Each of these days had its symbol and name.
The days were: Crocodile, Wind, House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement, Flint (knife), Rain, and Flower. After they would go through a cycle of 20 days, it would begin all over again. Each of these days also had a number. The numbers went from I-13. These also repeated like the symbols. These combinations of numbers and symbols formed a sacred count of 260 uniquely named days. The Aztecs called it the tonalpohualli (day count). Each of the day signs and each of the day numbers carried meaning for the Aztecs (De LaCova 2000).
Another calendar, tied to the solar year, operated at the same time. It functioned primarily to establish general planting and harvesting times. This 365-day year was divided into 18 “months” of 20 days, with 5 unlucky and useless days remaining at the end. Each month carried its own special festival and took the name of the celebration. The individual days of the calendar were not named unless something important happened. The day count of 260 days and the solar year of 365 days meshed perfectly every 52 years. This was the larger cycle by which historical events were measured.
The years, each named for the tonalpohualli day on which it ended, bore on of four signs (Rabbit, Reed, Flint, and House) and on of thirteen numbers. The years all carried a name and a number. The signs and numbers of the years also carried meanings. For example, the year I Flint was a year for great beginnings and I Rabbit was a year of drought and famine. The Aztecs have contributed to a number of societies and cultures. The were great people and were well educated for the time period in which they lived. Had they survived longer, who knows what the world would be like today.